Daily fantasy sites and gambling have been at the forefront of football this season. It is tough to miss the daily fantasy site ads, and ESPN is covering gambling publicly through Scott Van Pelt’s “Bad Beats” on SportsCenter. Major conferences in the NCAA started to push back this past week through comments to the media and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott saying he wouldn’t accept daily fantasy site advertising dollars. This has put pressure on NCAA media partners.
ESPN recently pulled its cover alert from games, saying it was just testing out the in-game updates on whether a team was covering its gambling spread. The timing of the decision can’t be a coincidence. ESPN’s official statement was that cover alerts didn’t add to its coverage, but gambling often keeps people watching a game after the outcome is clear. Cover alerts were most likely a fan engagement strategy. However, the conferences — and for good reason — didn’t want to be associated with gambling.
There are two sides to this issue. One is that the conferences shouldn’t be concerned with how ESPN makes its money. After all, asking ESPN to pull its cover alert won’t change the fact that daily fantasy sites remain a huge portion of advertising during games. If any sports channel wants easy money, the best way seems to be through partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel and the like. Gambling sells ads and engages fans.
However, the optics are bad. It makes sense that professional leagues wouldn’t worry about gambling as much as the NCAA. For one reason, professional players are far less likely to throw a game because they already make a lot of money. That isn’t the case with the unpaid NCAA athletes. Student-athletes could theoretically be influenced to shave points, and it has happened a few times throughout NCAA history. NCAA conferences should stay away from anything remotely close to gambling, and should ask its media partners to do so as well. It’s really an easy call.
ESPN and the NCAA made the right decision to eliminate cover alerts, but that won’t stop references to gambling by announcers during broadcasts or pregame analysis. Although gambling does provide business benefits to teams and leagues by increasing engagement, in this case its just not worth the money.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.